I’ve always been a huge fan of Marillion. In some ways, though, 1997 saw me at the peak of my fandom. They were about to release their first independent album, This Strange Engine, after leaving EMI with whom they’d had a recording contract since 1982. After the last couple of albums they’d released (1994’s epic conceptual album Brave, and 1995’s richly atmospheric Afraid Of Sunlight, which remain my two favourite Marillion albums to date), I was convinced that they could do no wrong, and I was seriously excited at the prospect of a new album of new material and the upcoming tour.
And so it was that, on the day of This Strange Engine‘s release, I walked into town, picked up the album from my local indie, and spent the rest of the day at work sneaking peeks at the sleeve and inlay booklet whenever I could. I couldn’t wait to get that sucker home.
Needless to say, I was absolutely gagging to sit down with the album and give it a proper listen. But I made myself wait until I’d had my evening meal and my folks were safely ensconced in front of the telly before retiring to my room, feeding the CD into my CD player and settling back, secure in the knowledge that Marillion were about to dazzle me for the next hour or so.
Only that’s not what happened.
At the end of my first listen, I was simply dazed. Surely that wasn’t it? Hmmm. There were vast tracts of the album that didn’t really seem to do anything for me. Odd. Still, it had happened before: it had taken me weeks to really appreciate Holidays In Eden, which had appeared slight to me at first, and much longer even than that to appreciate Brave, which I resolutely Did Not Get At All until I’d seen the band perform the whole album on the accompanying tour. So I played This Strange Engine again. And again. And again. And again. Days passed. Then weeks. Then the tour arrived. Still completely baffled by the album, I found it hard to get excited about the tour, and ended up only going to one show (at Wolverahampton’s Civic Hall), where I also didn’t get it. Indeed the band seemed tired and unenthusiastic themselves – it remains probably the worst show I’ve ever seen them play, although admittedly that probably had as much to do with my state of mind as the band’s performance itself.
I felt myself losing enthusiasm for the band, something I would have not imagined possible a couple of months before. Time passed, and This Strange Engine got played less and less – when I fancied a Marillion fix I would turn to one of the older albums, and feel a little sad that their musical trajectory was deviating from my own. Other bands received more of my attention. It even took me months to renew my fan club membership, something that I would have turned around in 24 hours before, just in case I managed to miss something.
It was during this cooling-off period that I got online for the first time. Being naturally music-obsessed, one of the first things I did was go looking for sites dedicated to my favourite bands – and one of the first things I discovered whilst trucking around the Net looking for Marillion-related stuff was the Freaks mailing list. There I discovered that This Strange Engine was actually quite fondly regarded, which gave me pause for thought (though not nearly as much pause for thought as the abuse levelled at Afraid Of Sunlight – it’s amazing to me these days that the album is routinely regarded by the majority of fans as one the band’s best albums, considering the seemingly almost unanimously hostile reception it got back in the mid-90s). But more interesting news was that the band were already working on a new album. This was the album released in Autumn 1998 as Radiation.
Despite my love/hate relationship with This Strange Engine, joining the Freaks mailing list had rekindled my interest in the band’s new work, and having rejoined the fan club, I seized on the chance to get a preview of the new album before its release at a specially-organised gig for the fan club, held at the sweat box that was the Zodiac Club in Oxford’s Cowley Road. This was in August 1998, and I remember it was a ferociously hot day. I travelled down to Oxford with my school friend James who I occasionally cajoled into coming to gigs with me as he had his own car and travelling with James was (a) more fun than flying solo and (b) cheaper. The weather was so balmy that by the time we got down to Oxford we were already sweating buckets. By the time the Zodiac had filled up with equally hot and sweaty Marillion fans, the place was quite literally melting: condensation was running down the walls.
The band thoughtfully attempted to play the album in full over the PA before the gig, giving everyone time to listen to it before they came out to play, but the volume of chatter was such that it was a completely futile gesture. All I can remember hearing of the album was the blues guitar of Born To Run and the epic ending of A Few Words For The Dead, but I do remember feeling vaguely reassured by both, and looking forward to hearing the material played live in an hour or two.
When the band took the stage a little later, I wasn’t really prepared for the opener, new song Costa Del Slough: an almost Noel Coward-esque bit of acoustic whimsy, with Steve Hogarth singing through a megaphone. For a moment I had flashbacks to the daft Hope For The Future (This Strange Engine‘s nadir, for me) which was similarly whimsical. But as the opening riff of Under The Sun crashed in, suddenly I was on firmer ground. I have rarely fallen so hard and so fast for a song as I did for Under The Sun. The lyric was comic and sarcastic by turns, but the band were powering through a rocker the likes of which they had rarely turned in lately, the whole thing underpinned by Mark Kelly’s booming Moog part and a truly ferocious solo from Steve Rothery that showed the band still had a full set of teeth. I had come to see that part of the reason that I had been underwhelmed by This Strange Engine was that a lot of that album was acoustically based: I’ve always been a ‘plug ’em in and turn ’em up’ boy myself. And that is exactly what the new material was delivering.
It probably says a lot about the gig that I don’t actually remember what older songs, if any, were actually played. All I remember is the Radiation material. After Under The Sun we got the full-tilt rock-out of The Answering Machine (another instant favourite), Three Minute Boy with its gentle Beatles pastiche and knowing lyrics, the anthemic These Chains and a truly thunderous Cathedral Wall, which instantly became one of my all-time favourite Marillion songs – darker than just about anything they’d done before, with or without previous frontman Fish, and possessed of a phenomenally eerie quiet midsection and dynamite full-tilt ending, it ticked every box for me. I was absolutely gobsmacked at the end of the gig. It beggared belief to me that this was a band I was almost ready to give up on.
On a personal note, the gig was also notable for me for two other reasons. During the all-too-quiet playback of the album, I overheard a stocky guy in shorts and khaki top waxing enthusiastic about what I later came to realise was A Few Words For The Dead. I had no idea at the time, but a few weeks later in London, I was introduced to him – it was Rob Crossland, who at the time was putting the fan club magazines together. Also, pottering around the merch stand afterwards, I bumped into a young woman clutching a glass of coke and a lit cigarette who was holding court with a small group of people who were talking about the recently released first batch of remastered Marillion back catalogue albums that EMI were putting together. Putting two and two together from what was being said I realised that this was Lucy Jordache, who worked for EMI and was largely responsible for the remastering project. I managed to introduce myself and thank her for what she was doing, little realising that in a year or so I’d be going to parties at her house. When people come out with that old cliche, “it’s a small world”, they’re not kidding. It’s a tiny world.
And so Radiation was released. Despite what was identified fairly early on as a fairly ropey mix and frustrating mastering job, it rapidly became a huge personal favourite despite all the controversy it caused. Marillion had entered an experimental stage in their career, where they made a concerted effort not to be constrained by their earlier work, and needless to say it lost them as many fans as they won – possibly more, in fact, as gig attendances slowly dwindled for the rest of the 90s.
I’d always been broad-minded when it came to music: so much so that I didn’t really have a favourite genre (I still don’t, to be honest). Consequently, when fans started openly expressing dissatisfaction with Marillion’s more experimental writing, I began to defend them, somewhat outspokenly at times. I remember one spat on the Freaks list in particular, a mano-e-mano face-off with one of the reviewers for the Dutch progressive Rock Pages (DPRP) named Ed Sander (he’s still with DPRP today). We had diametrically opposed views on the album, and we went on hacking chunks out of each other for well over a week, taking up the majority of the mailing list digests during that time, neither of us emerging from it looking especially good. That was my first real taste of open internet warfare, and it actually taught me a great deal about how not to come off looking like a complete tool, so I probably owe Ed some overdue thanks. The fact remains that I admired Marillion for taking the chance to try something different and not making the same (albeit well-received) album over and over again. I still admire bands for doing that – if anything it seems more and more the case that bands are content to not push their personal envelopes, and it is the listener that suffers (whether they appreciate that fact or not). Consequently, Radiation is more than just an album full of great music to me: it stands for something, too. It represents a band’s willingness to experiment, to explore their music and do something unexpected, something I feel strongly that every band needs to do – not just to survive, but to grow and develop.
Why all this reminiscing? Well, Marillion have just announced that Radiation is to be the featured album at their Marillion Weekend events next year. It’s always been a controversial album, ever since its release, so it’s disappointing but not surprising to see very mixed reactions to this news. For me, though, this is amazing news. It’s one of my favourite Marillion albums for all the reasons given above, but due to its controversial nature, the band have been wary of adding too many of the songs from the album into their regular set lists. Consequently us Radiation afficionados have been largely starved of live performances of this material for quite a long time now – some of the songs make very occasional appearances at the covention weekends, but these are few and far between, especially for songs that I find so powerful and emotive. To have the chance to hear the whole album played in full, and recorded for posterity into the bargain, is just… Well, it’s wonderful. I can’t wait.
So, if you’re one of those who are disappointed by the news that Radiation is to be the featured album at these events, please, spare a thought for those of us who find the album really special, eh? Please don’t spoil the featured album nights at these events by using them to chat to your mates all the way through the gig. It might be fine during full-on rock-outs like Under The Sun and The Answering Machine, but nattering away whilst the band play the fragile, beautiful Now She’ll Never Know or Born To Run, or the gorgeous atmospheric extended intro of A Few Words For The Dead is just going to spoil things for those of us who love the album. We don’t get a chance to hear this stuff all that often, so please, if you don’t care for it, either stay away or show some consideration. It’s an hour out of your lives, and it’ll make dyed-in-the-wool Radiation nuts like me so very, very happy. In fact, if you can keep the noise down – or preferably not make any in the first place – I’ll happily buy you a pint.